Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

A Little East of Eden: Yona Wallach and the Shores of American Poetry

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

A Little East of Eden: Yona Wallach and the Shores of American Poetry

Article excerpt

A Little East of Eden: Yona Wallach and the Shores of American Poetry A Link East of Eden: Yona Wallach and the Shores of American Poetry Yona Wallach. Let the Words: Selected Poems. Translated by Linda Stern Zisquit. Sheep Meadow Press 2006. 178 pp. $17.95 (paper).

MANY years ago, Jane Cooper, my creative writing teacher at the time, suggested that American poets' love of poetry in translation was a way of compensating for frustrated ambition. When we read translations, she said, we imagine originals that achieve what we long our own poems to be-and through this projection of poetic desire, translations make visible to us the work we need to do.

Poets who wish upon translated stars would do well to turn their gazes toward Israeli voyante Yona Wallach. With drugs and sex and flagrant exhibitionistic delight, Wallach did to the staid mid-twentiethcentury Israeli poetry scene what Rimbaud did to the salon symbolistes of mid-nineteenth-century France. Yona rocked and Israeli poetry rolled, and is still rolling in the aftermath of her one-woman assault on the boundaries between male and female, sacred and profane, self and other, body and soul. Despite Sheep Meadow Press' publication of the 1997 version of Wild Light: Selected Poems of Yona Wallach, translated by Linda Zisquit and reissued in updated form this year, and the recent appearance of Zafrira Lidovsky Cohen's book-length study "Loosen the Fetters of Thy Tongue, Woman": The Poetry and Poetics of Yona Wallach (Hebrew Union College Press, 2003), Wallach is little known in the United States. That's too bad, because her work has much to teach us about American poetic tradition and ambition.

The shores of American poetic ambition were defined in the midnineteenth century, when Walt Whitman decided that an all-embracing poetry of exhortation, description, and praise could reunite a disintegrating nation, and Emily Dickinson decided that life, death, the soul, God, and eternity could fit within a few clipped quatrains. For many American poets, Dickinson and Whitman still constitute the East and West Coast of American poetic striving, opposing impulses toward expansion and contraction, refinement and spontaneity, extroversion and introversion, populist accessibility and hermetic experimentation, explosively sexual masculinity and passionately labyrinthine femininity.

Wallach synthesizes Whitmanian and Dickinsonian impulses that we tend to think of as mutually exclusive. Like Whitman's, Wallach's language is unkempt, repetitive, a barbaric yawp whose brazen disregard of aesthetic and linguistic convention testifies to its primal vitality. Wallach delights in provocation and violation, rushing in to sexual territory where other poets blush to tread. And like Whitman, Wallach believes that her self-delighting exhibitionism is redemptive, that her shattering of limits on the page can shatter the limitations"mind-forg'd manacles," as William Blake, another didactic visionary, called them-that shackle her readers.

But unlike Whitman, Wallach doesn't address her readers en masse. Her I is not omnivorous, swallowing readers whole. Like Dickinson's, there is a palpable apartness to Wallach's first-person personae. Even during explicitly sexual encounters-Wallach wrote a sort of poetic Kama Sutra, a series of sexual instruction poems that scandalized Israeli readers with injunctions such as "When you come to sleep with me / wear a judge's robe ... /be the law / wear a wig on your huge head / fuck me standing / stick it into me so I won't know where I am"-her speakers remain introspective, detached, as though even the most intense experience were an occasion for anatomizing consciousness. Like Dickinson's, Wallach's poems have an abstract, sensually evacuated quality that invite us to regard existence from a standpoint that seems somehow beyond it. Where Whitman sometimes seems less interested in words than he is in life, Wallach, like Dickinson, sees words as a source and shaper of life, and is fascinated by the way words and life de- and recompose under sustained poetic attention. …

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